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10 Project Management Terms for Non-Project Managers

Every profession has its own distinct glossary—a set of terms that to a novice or outsider might sound foreign, but to experienced practitioners is like a second language. Project management is no different.

According to Tony Oliver, a highly experienced PMP® credential holder and  instructor in the UC Davis Continuing and Professional Education Project Management Certificate Program, projects do not exist in a vacuum—they support and influence multiple other initiatives within an organization. So, understanding the basic language of projects is essential for project managers and non-project managers alike. 

Here are 10 project management terms from Oliver that provide a good foundation for increasing comprehension in the workplace. While you won’t become fluent in project management solely from learning these terms, they will go a long way toward gaining confidence in running your projects! Note, these explanations are in “plain English” and not the “official” definitions expressed by the Project Management Institute (PMI®) and the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®).

1. Baseline

Project progress is measured against the original expectations of time (schedule) and cost (budget). A baseline serves as this standard on which success will be gauged. However, as projects incorporate changes, the baseline will also change to reflect these new requests. Project managers should strive to ensure people understand the “real” status is noted against the baseline, not against the way the wind is blowing that day. Think of your household cleaning process. It may normally take you an hour to scrub the floor, clean the shower, etc. but it might be longer if there are some heavier stains due to a spilled bottle of shampoo.

2. Constraint

Does this word make you uncomfortable? We have a tendency to reject or avoid constraints, but the most important thing is to acknowledge and understand them. Think of these as limitations on your project which you must address and work around. For example, if you are planning a vacation and only have five days off to use, you would want to avoid long flights that would cut into your vacation.

3. Critical Path

Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Dangerous, perhaps. This is a commonly misunderstood term that even seasoned project managers sometimes struggle to explain. The critical path refers to project activities that, if delayed, would delay the entire project. Imagine you are cooking Thanksgiving dinner and have selected turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie for the menu. You don’t handle the turkey first, then the potatoes, then the pie; there are some things you can do in parallel. However, the turkey takes the longest. This would mean that the turkey (defrosting, seasoning, roasting) is the critical path. Everything else can be delayed (to a certain degree) and you can still have the dinner ready when desired.

4. Customer

This is fertile ground for misunderstanding! Your client or customer is whomever will be using the product or service you are developing. It could be all external clients or a subset; it could be your peers within the organization or your partners in the supply chain. Be clear about who is the customer for your specific project, as it will help you and your team more accurately define the goals and parameters.

5. Product 

Don’t think of a physical thing. The product is, simply put, what your project is delivering. It could be an actual object, but it could also be a service.

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6. Project

This is one of those words everyone may understand but may not be able to define. There are two components to a project: it must have a goal (the product to be created, fixed, improved, etc.) and it must be confined to a specific time. Your city’s Independence Day parade may be a project, but its day-to-day running of the garbage service is not, since it’s ongoing (this would be called operations).

7. Scope

Have you ever seen kids struggle with picking up toys? They may want to carry ALL of their toys from one location to another, but their arms can only capture so many. Some fall when being carried, others never quite fit in their arms. That’s the essence of the scope. The project cannot do everything. Instead, it must focus on a set of priorities and those will determine what is included. 

8. Quality

This concept is typically confused with scope. Imagine you go to a sandwich shop and ask for ham, cheese, lettuce and tomato on wheat bread. If you receive those five items, then the scope is met. However, if the cheese is moldy, the lettuce is not crisp and the bread is soggy, there is a quality issue. It’s still a sandwich, but it does not meet your expectations as a customer. Ensuring that a project not only fulfills its scope, but is completed to the highest standards of quality is an essential function of any project manager.

9. Requirement

If scope is the big picture, then requirements provide the small picture. Remember our sandwich? Perhaps you asked the restaurant to bake the bread. Maybe you wanted it cut into thirds or you asked for the condiments on the side. Those, along with the ham, cheese, lettuce, tomato and wheat bread, are the core of the request for you to be a satisfied customer.

10. Stakeholder

Your client or customer may be the end user of your project, but stakeholders are those that have a vested interest in the outcome of your product, process or service. A list of stakeholders should be developed early on during a project and constantly updated throughout its lifecycle.  Ask yourself who is affected by the project and cast a wide net because forgetting a stakeholder will result in problems down the road!

About the Author

Tony Oliver has two decades of experience in a variety of roles, including project manager, business analyst and change management specialist. Leveraging his project management and Six Sigma certifications, he is currently a senior manager with Aetna, a CVS Health Company, and has experience as a peer and career advisor and mentor.

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